CES Robots Were Invisible

The shocking advances in robot technology were not on display at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show, at least not in a way that anybody would recognize.

There were lots of robots to see, of course, but they were mostly the silly and goofy kind, modeled on the advanced technologies debuted on Battlestar Galactica in 1978 to meet our expectations for clunky machines with smiling “faces.” I saw many robots that rolled around awkwardly as they struggled to function like smartphones.

The real robot innovations at the show didn’t have arms, legs, or faces; they were embedded in everything…cameras, TVs, cars and, of course, smartphones. Warner Bros announced that it would use a robot to decide how to distribute its films. Toyota is building an entire city in which to test robots doing just about everything. TV celebrity Mark Cuban ominously warned that everyone needs to learn and invest.

You see, when people talk about AI they’re really talking about robots.

Robots are AI connected to actions, so the intelligence isn’t just smart but results in a decision. Light switches are robots, only really limited and dumb ones. A semi-autonomous car is a robot on wheels. IBM’s Watson is a robot that uses human beings for its arms and legs.

Robots already pick groceries, decide insurance premiums, allocate electricity on transmission lines, decide if your tap water is safe enough to drink, land airplanes and, well, you get the idea.

In fact, a company called Neon debuted an AI that generated a human form on a screen and was designed to serve no other purpose than exist. The company said it’s an experiment intended to discover the “soul of tech” as these robots think, learn, and eventually expire. So they invented the first virtual prison and sent AI/robots there without due process.

Why the semantic and form factor distractions?

Maybe the idea of AI is more vague and therefore less threatening because it’s disembodied, so people visualize it like a complicated computer program. It’s more “techie” and, as its evangelists claim, just another tool for improving things, so there’s nothing to worry about.

Conversely, if we see robots as both something different and specifically in the form of clunky machines, they’re also less threatening. We remain superior because such rolling side tables could only be our servants.

But we need to overcome this distinction without much of a difference if we want to truly understand what’s going on.

We should be debating what freedoms and rights we want to give away in order to enjoy the benefits of AI/robot decision making and action. It’s not all bad…the latitude we enjoy to drive dangerously is not enshrined in any governing document, let alone supported by common sense…but it’s also not all good, either.

How will making, say, purchase decisions easier and more efficient also rob us of true freedom of choice? Shouldn’t we discuss the merits and rawbacks of consigning care of our children or seniors to machines? Will deeper and more automatic insights into our behavior improve school admissions and insurance policies or simply imprison our future selves in our pasts? What will it do to jobs?

Oh, and those robots from Boston Dynamics? They do look like early Terminator prototypes, and no amount of impressive acrobatics can stop me from imagining them holding rifles.

As long as robots are kept invisible, these conversations don’t happen…which is the point, perhaps: Why worry about anything if all those cute little robots can do is smile as they play your favorite songs?

[This essay originally appeared at]

By Jonathan Salem Baskin

I'm a writer, musician, and science junkie.

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